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Why now is a great time to be in business

(MoneyWatch) It's a lousy time to start or grow a business, right? Wrong! Over half of America's Fortune 500 companies started during a depression or recession.

As far back as the first century BCE, Horace noted that "Adversity reveals greatness; prosperity conceals it."

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These companies either started or prospered during an economic downturn or depression:

  • Motorola was started in 1928, a year before the great depression began.
  • Disney was founded in 1923, releasing "Steamboat Willie" (the first Mickey Mouse movie with synchronized music and sound effects) in 1928.
  • Hewlett-Packard started in 1939. One of their first customers was Disney Studios.
  • Xerox began in 1906 during the post World War I recession.
  • Ryder was founded in 1933.
  • Revlon began beautifying women in 1932 with opaque long lasting nail enamel.
  • Converse was founded in 1908 during the Banker's Crash that started in 1907.
  • Interstate Bakeries (makers of Twinkies) began in 1933.
  • The Pittsburgh Steelers (one of the few franchises to survive from that time) was founded on July 8, 1933.
  • Sports Illustrated began in 1954 at the tail end of a recession.

More recent examples include FedEx and Microsoft - both founded during the Stagflation of the 70s. CNN, USA Today, and MTV all started in the economic slump of the early 80's and Wikipedia was born during the post 9/11 recession.

Economic downturns haven't just favored start-ups. Established companies have made some incredible gains in down economies as well. From 2000 to 2001, Google, PayPal and Salesforce.com Inc. all thrived, leading PayPal to go public in 2002, followed by Google and Salesforce.com in 2004.

Groupon started in November 2008, at the beginning of the 2008 financial market collapse. In November 2011, Groupon went public, having the largest public offering since Google.

Yet thousands of businesses collapsed during these same times. Why? The Kaufman Foundation said it well: "Every generation of start-ups is ... both a renewal and restructuring of the economy."

So, what's the difference between the "lucky" ones and the "used-to-be's"? For sure, timing plays a role, but it rarely, if ever determines long-term success. It's less about outside circumstances and more about inside qualities and characteristics. Or as Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. put it, "What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared with what lies within us."

Entrepreneurs see problems as opportunities
Once upon a time there was a little girl that was so unfailingly, unflappably optimistic that her parents worried that she would not be prepared to face the often brutal realities of adulthood. When a truck-load of fertilizer was delivered on her birthday, she thought it was her birthday present. She immediately grabbed a shovel and frantically began digging through the mountain of manure. "What are you doing?" her parents asked. She replied, "With all this horse poop, there's got to be a pony in here somewhere."

Entrepreneurs are problem solvers. They see beyond the pile of poop and look for the pony. Every crisis is an opportunity for change; every problem begs for a solution. Candy Lightner founded M.A.D.D. (Mothers Against Drunk Drivers) in 1980 after a repeat drunk driving offender killed her daughter, Cari.

We are all problem solvers to varying degrees. When confronted with problems, we all seek solutions. The difference is that successful entrepreneurs solve other peoples' problems, not just their own. Though their solutions may have originated from their individual situation, they are able to recognize a widespread need, replicate the remedies, and offer the solution to others.

In 1995, Nicole Donnelly's baby daughter had a diaper rash that just wouldn't quit. The rash needed some fresh air to heal, but Nicole also wanted to keep her daughter warm. In a moment of inspiration, she snipped the feet off of a pair of socks and fitted her daughter from hip to ankle with these new "leg warmers." They not only kept her daughter warm, but also made diaper changing and potty training easier, and protected her soft knees while crawling. Soon, she was selling them to other Northwest mommies out of the back of the diaper bag. Baby Legs was born. By the time Sarah started kindergarten, Baby Legs had grown to be a multi-million dollar international business.

Entrepreneurs seize opportunities
Hockey great Wayne Gretzky is often quoted for saying: "Statistically - 100% of the shots you don't take, don't go in." He took a lot of shots. In fact, he's the only player in NHL history to score 200 points in a season and he did it four times. Though he retired in 1999, he still holds the NHL record for leading point scorer.

Successful entrepreneurs see risk but they don't let that stop them from taking their best shots. They don't ask: "Who is going to let me?" Instead they ask, "Who is going to stop me?"

They don't do it alone
Gretzky also had more assists than any other player in the NHL had points. A business, like hockey, is a team sport. Even if it doesn't include employees, it requires other team members such as customers, suppliers, vendors, sales and marketing people, bankers, accountants, lawyers, mentors, advisors, community organizations, etc.

Bottom line is that winning businesses have winning teams. Success is, in large part, a result of the quality and quantity of relationships.

The best businesses make a meaningful difference
Recessions should help business owners better focus on what customers truly want and need as well as highlight the gaps in conventional offerings. Companies that survive and thrive in bad economic times act more like a start-up than an established business. They scrutinize both their product offerings and their business practices in the light of current market needs to find solutions that create opportunities.

In good times and in bad, the best companies are those that deliver the best value to their customers. As Peter Drucker in The Effective Executive admonishes, replace the quest for success with the quest for contribution. The critical question, he says, is not, "How can I achieve?" but "What can I contribute?"

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